The coffee situation

With permission, we are reprinting David Moldawer’s latest column from The Maven Game, his series on writing, editing, and publishing.

Welcome to the Maven Game. Can I get you anything?

In publishing parlance, I'm not "in house" anymore, meaning I no longer hold a full-time editorial position at a book publisher. (Ironically, I now work in my actual house.) 

It wasn't an easy transition. When I left those roles behind, they stood me up in front of the industry and ceremonially stripped my elbow patches—it was a sad day for the regiment.

Back when I was in-house, I'd always assume the edges were deckled someplace else. ("Edges were deckled" means "grass is greener" in publishing parlance.) My current publishing house was always clueless about why one book worked over another. Surely the go-getters at [insert imprint name] who'd recently published [insert bestseller] knew something about publishing books that we didn't.

So, in search of dark arts and hidden knowledge, I'd peregrinate from publisher to publisher. Inevitably, I'd discover that imprint B just wanted to know the secrets I must have picked up while at imprint A.

To quote the late, great William Goldman, nobody knows anything. Not in Hollywood, and not in New York book publishing either.

Thankfully, while the mechanics of popularity remain obscure even to seasoned publishing professionals, the mechanics of doing good work are not—if you're paying attention. Editorial leapfrog revealed that certain environmental factors play a pivotal role in the quality of the finished product. Talent counts, sure, but it's crucial to get the setup right, too.

While you can still fail with a great book, wouldn't that be preferable to failing with a bad one?

Environment matters no matter the nature of the work. Years ago, I discovered the blog of an anonymous music engineer struggling to record a debut album with a deeply untalented band. (Eventually, the engineer, Eric Sarafin, revealed his identity and published the whole series of tales as The Daily Adventures of MixermanWell worth a read.) 

What struck me were Sarafin's descriptions of all the thoughtful effort he put into setting up the recording studio, both acoustically and otherwise. Carpets, pillows, lighting—like an ER nurse, he anticipated the needs of everyone involved and took hundreds of small actions to unimpede everyone's flow. Clearly, he'd given a great deal of thought to creating an environment for creating.

Since then, I've made a hobby of reading books and other accounts of legendary workplaces, from Pixar to Xerox PARC to the Manhattan Project. I could write a book about the commonalities I've found, but I'll leave that to the "future of work" and "organizational design" experts (who can then hire me to do so). What I will offer is a little shorthand to quickly gauge the BFI of a given outfit. (Brain Firehose Index.) Next time you enter a working environment, ask yourself a simple question:

What's the coffee situation?

(Actually, don't ask yourself. Ask the people who work there. That's what I do.)

It doesn't have to be good coffee. It doesn't matter if the people there even drink the coffee. However, if the coffee is plentiful, easily accessible, and constantly on offer, you can count on a constellation of other factors related to good work, from a serendipity-boosting layout to an appropriately stimulating but non-distracting acoustic environment. The space itself doesn't have to be pretty or clean, but it will be conducive. The coffee situation tells you a lot.

As an industry outsider, I now have the opportunity to visit the offices of all the major publishers. The coffee situation varies. If you have the opportunity to meet with a publisher about selling your own proposal, take note.

I'm not telling you to decide on a publisher—or on any other collaboration—based on whether you're offered a cup of joe as you walk in the door. And then another one when that one's finished. But, come on, shouldn't you?


Two good friends in editing and publishing are Naomi Kim Eagleson and Gary Mawyer. Here is an interview with them on the subjects of services, clients, and communication.

Peak Services Describe the services you offer.

Gary I offer editing services for medical papers and academic nonfiction. My editorial career began in a legal publishing house, and I was also a code editor for a proprietary legal software system for two years, but the bulk of my editing career has been with medical journals, including the Investigative Section and the Clinical Section of The Journal of Urology, managing editor of the U.S. section of The World Journal of Urology, and managing editor of the Journal of Wound, Ostomy and Continence Nursing. All these are international peer-reviewed scientific journals with high impact factors in Journal Citation Reports. I was also the editor-in-chief of the Virginia Transportation Research Council for two years, which averaged over a hundred annual publications per year during my tenure.  I’m a former member of the Council of Biology Editors. I have page-edited a number of textbooks in different fields, including the massive three-volume Adult and Pediatric Urology by Jay Gillenwater et al.

I retired from the University of Virginia a few years ago, and my current editing is primarily molecular biology and clinical medicine papers, almost all from Taiwan, China, and Japan.

Naomi I own a book editing company called The Artful Editor, which is comprised of a small team of editors and designers. Together we provide a range of services to authors, ranging from developmental editing and copyediting to cover design and typesetting. In other words, when an author contacts me, one of the first things I do is determine their writing goals, the condition of their manuscript, and the service(s) their book would benefit from. For example, a rough draft of a novel would likely benefit from a big-picture edit, since there may still be structural issues that would require further revisions to the story. Then, after the author has revised and addressed the big-picture issues, we can focus on fine-tuning words and sentences. Some form of line editing is a must for every writer, especially for those who are trying to stand out in the publishing marketplace.

Some of the other services we provide are book coaching, query letter critiques, indexing, and book design. We even ghostwrite books! This last service is for authors who struggle to flesh-out their ideas on paper, or have great ideas but are too busy to write them down.

Peak Services Summarize, in general terms, the kinds of publications or projects you've worked on.

Naomi Most of the projects my team and I have worked on are novels, memoirs, and general nonfiction, such as prescriptive books (aka self-help). Most of these books are by authors who plan to self-publish or who seek agent representation, or who have an agent but need help revising their book since, for various reasons, publishers aren't making offers.

Gary Over the years I have done a surprising amount of general liberal arts editing. The amount surprises me at least, since I don’t advertise. This I would say is the most enjoyable and sometimes the most generally informative type of editing, I was page editor for Kamehameha School’s Hūlili  magazine for three years. Hūlili was easily my favorite editing gig ever, for the intrinsic interest and diversity of the articles.

My own writing is mostly fiction, though my fiction leans strongly toward historical research. The truth is I would almost rather edit than write, and most of my writing consists of me editing myself.

Peak Services How do you handle payment?

Naomi Because I’m responsible for paying editors and designers, I always require a signed contract and a deposit up front. It’s never been an issue with authors; rather, the contract assures them that we’re professionals and the expectations of our relationship and responsibilities are clear.

Our editorial rates are tailored for each project since no two manuscripts are alike. Rates are neither too low nor too high, but priced just right.

Gary Since I don’t advertise, I only get new clients through old clients. My client list is short, and I am careful to undercharge aggressively, in the hope of attracting the youngest of the best scientists who are most likely to benefit from my work and have little money to spend on editing services.

I dislike contracts and never offer one myself. People who do not trust each other should not be doing business. If somebody offers me a contract, I will sign it if I like the terms. For business purposes my editing is rolled over into my other business activities as an author, bookseller, and dealer in antiques and collectibles (on eBay mostly). I charge well below market rates, both to temper the wind to the shorn lambs and to spite the competition. All told, I struggle to finish in the black, and some years I don’t.

Peak Services Give us a few examples of successful endeavors.

Naomi We edited and designed a memoir and companion cookbook titled A Recipe for Hope by Jeffery Weaver. Jeff and his family raised nearly $8,000 during a successful Kickstarter campaign, and after the book was published, the author did several podcast interviews and was invited to speak about his book at a public event.

Two authors whose memoirs we edited have books coming out this fall through She Writes Press, a hybrid publisher that promotes women writers. The books are Room 23 by Kavita Basi and Fetish Girl by Bella LaVey. I’m excited to see these women succeed after all the hard work they put into writing these books.

We’ve also helped several writers gain agent representation, and see their manuscripts accepted for publication.

Peak Services Give a few examples of where things went wrong: clients expected things you didn't promise; payments were not what you'd agreed on; clients stopped communicating with you.

Naomi When things go wrong, it’s usually because of a misunderstanding about what was expected. For example, a book benefits from multiple rounds of copyediting and proofreading before it’s published, but most authors can’t afford to pay beyond one or two rounds. This means that the likelihood of errors making its way into their printed book is increased. The good news is, if they are self-publishing they can easily update the current version with a corrected version.

Sometimes a client misses a payment, but it’s usually due to a financial emergency or a personal difficulty, such as a sick child or sudden job loss. I even had a case where the author’s house burned down! Thankfully, these cases are rare and no one was seriously hurt.

Gary About difficult clients and about getting stiffed for payment: I have only been stiffed a couple of times in thirty years.  Once I got stiffed on a book that had a number of academic editors who were supposed to pay me individually for their sections, and one did not. Then the book went into a second edition and required a full re-edit. I had considerable respect for the other editors, so I grudgingly did my nonpaying client’s section of the book again too, fully expecting to be stiffed twice by the same guy. He was, incidentally, a department chairman somewhere, which did not increase my confidence. But he paid me the second time, and he paid for both editions. So he well knew he’d stiffed me the first time but had enough residual honesty to eventually pay. There are more dishonest individuals loose in the world than we might think, but if you don’t advertise, they can’t find you.

Then there is the issue of the difficult client. I have not had many difficult clients, but clients are sometimes under terrible pressure. Some are struggling to advance academically in a country whose language they do not speak well. Some clients come to you because they have alienated everyone else. Others have been told they’re going to be thrown off the faculty unless they publish something this year. My advice to freelance editors is not to communicate with your clients beyond the bare minimum. Those guys are in a different world. I strongly advocate never saying too much of anything. The client’s communication is the manuscript itself. If the client has much more to say than “here is the manuscript,” something is probably wrong. I track changes in my editing and consider that to be my communication back. I usually don’t know much else to say.

Peak Services Any last words for our readers?

Gary Over a period of years, a steady client is likely to become a friend as well as a client. After you’ve edited someone repeatedly over a period of years, you find you’ve learned a lot about that client. Looking at your edits has also told the client more about you than you probably realize. I’d call friendship the best outcome, but the editor still ought to remember to get paid anyway. It would be a sorry cap to a career if they carved “Only his enemies paid him” on the tombstone.

Naomi Overall, authors are wonderful, honest, and hardworking people. By the time they’ve contacted me, they’ve spent months or years working diligently on their manuscript and are now seeking to take their book to the next level. Some partnerships I’ve had with authors lasted for years, and, like in Gary’s experience, turned into a friendship. It’s truly special when that happens.